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Sunday, May 7, 2017

Lippincott Pass and Death Valley's Racetrack Playa

The Grandstand appears to float on the Death Valley's Racetrack Playa


What's the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Death Valley National Park? Chances are it would be one of the following: hot, really hot, frying hot, dust, wind...death maybe? Even if you jotted down a hundred things, I doubt that snow would be one of them, but that is exactly what stopped us in our tracks on the way to the famous Racetrack Playa.

An old sign still stands halfway up Lippincott Pass announcing the entrance to the park. It's been 23 years since Death Valley was designated a National Park; it became a National Monument in 1933.

Our group had compared notes during our stay at the Geologist's cabin and realized none of us had ever taken the Hunter Mountain route to get to Racetrack Playa.

Hey! we said, Let's do it! It'll be fun!

It was early February, during a record year of precipitation in California. The Panamint mountains, which make up the western edge of  Death Valley, range from 6,000' to 11,000' and it didn't come as a surprise that snow might fall there. What surprised us was the staying power; when we arrived Hunter Pass had ten feet of cold, hard packed snow that wasn't giving any sign of melting soon. There was a short discussion of having the Unimog take a run at it and try to clear a path for the rest of our vehicles, but it was quickly scrapped as one of those ideas that might get us on the Darwin Awards list. None of us had a craving for that kind of infamy.


Let's start at the beginning:

After having an expensively nice lunch at the Forty-Niner Cafe in Furnace Creek, our group raced out of the valley on Hwy 190 past Stovepipe Wells to Saline Valley Rd, just as the sun was setting. We found a nice spot not far from the turnoff and set up camp. This area is BLM land, and you're allowed to camp anywhere there is an established spot. This site was perfect for the four vehicles, and even came with a fire ring which we quickly utilized. It was darned cold up there. (FYI: This is where we discovered that wrapping cold chocolate chip cookies in foil and sticking them on the coals for a few minutes makes the perfect camp dessert.)


In the morning we took off for Hunter Pass. Saline Valley Road is actually a nice wide county-maintained gravel road. As it climbed into the mountains though, it turned from gravel to dirt to damp dirt to mud. Thick gooey mud. The snow started showing up around 6,000' and the mud turned to slushy mud. After coating all our trucks in exquisite plaster-like muck we came to an intersection: To the right up to Hunter Pass (which looked pretty clear as far as we could see); to the left was down to Saline Valley, where the turnoff to Lippincott Pass was located.  Andrew went ahead toward Hunter Pass, disappearing around the corner. One minute later the radio bleeped; "Uh, you guys might want to wait back there for a minute."


Rasa and Craig forge ahead on the mucky road

Snow. Enough snow to throw snowballs at each other, make snow angels in, and certainly to get a vehicle stuck in. Andrew gave it a go, but wasn't confident he would be able to make it very far. He drove back, and a contingent of the group walked up the road to check it out. After kicking at it a bit, then seeing how much deeper it got just a few hundred feet further up the road, it was decided that Lippincott Pass would be beautiful this time of year.

Ryan and Andrew confer about the feasibility of having the Unimog blaze a trail for us. The general consensus was we all liked our vehicles (and each other) too much to risk it.

Mark makes a snow angel while we wait for a decision on the pass.
The view from the intersection of Hunter Mountain Pass/Saline Valley Rd, looking back toward Hwy 190, Panamint dunes in the center.

In the meantime, we had picked up another vehicle on the route; an older guy (I'll call him Larry) in a truck and camper had passed our camp earlier that morning, and we caught up to him when he pulled over and tried to figure out where he was. Larry heard where we were going and decided that sounded like where he was going. As we all turned around to take the left fork Larry settled into the middle of the pack, trundling along in his Ford. Every so often he would pull over and dig around in his back seat; by the time we got to the turnoff to Lippincott, everyone had passed him and he was at the end of our line of vehicles.

The road across Saline Valley leading to Lippincott Pass. Notice the brown highlights on the white paint of the Xterra, courtesy of Saline Valley Rd.

We gathered at the crossroads a few minutes, and Andrew was volunteered to go first. He was in one of the most nimble vehicles, and if he encountered anyone coming down he would be most able to pull over to give them room and warn them of our group coming up. Lippincott Pass, as you may have guessed, is not a very wide road. In fact, it would be exaggerating to describe parts of it as "one lane."

Looking down at Lippincott Pass road, "Larry", us and the Unimog were lining up for the last (and scariest) leg, Saline Valley behind us. (photo courtesy of Rasa and Craig Fuller)

Here's the thing about these back roads; no one takes care of them. If there's a slide, there will be a pile of rocks in the middle. If there are heavy rains and some of the road washes out, hopefully your vehicle's not too wide. Eventually, sometimes, pending funding, a park employee will take a grader over some of it and try shoring it up, but no guarantees. So you have to keep your eyes open, know your vehicle, your skills (or lack thereof), and be prepared to back down if necessary.

The Unimog navigates a slide area of the road.
(photo credit: Rasa and Craig Fuller)
Here's a view from behind, going over another slide area.

We got pretty lucky. We didn't meet anyone coming down, and the road was in fairly good shape, considering the rainy year. There were a few slide areas we had to drive over, making the Unimog in particular tilt at a nail biting angle, and a few wash outs that necessitated a spotter, but otherwise it went well. The ride was uneventful, and Larry only pulled over once to rummage in the back of his truck on the way up. Andrew met us at the top and we all took pictures of the sign with our vehicles, another successful pass! Our luck continued with the sight of an empty campground at the top; Homestake Camp is where we planned to spend the night.

The top of Lippincott Pass, dirty but victorious.

We pulled in and Larry pulled up next to us to rest before heading out toward Teakettle Junction. He rummaged in his backseat one more time and emerged with a beer, sitting down on his bumper to shoot the breeze a bit more. We realized then, that starting around 9:00am, this guy had at least four beers before we got up and over the mountain. It was now 11:15.

Our new friend thanked us for letting him tag along, tucked his beer into a koozie and headed off down the road. As we watch his dusty wake, we decided to re-name Lippincott "Four Beer Pass" in his honor, then silently shuddered to ourselves with retroactive fear at what could have happened.

The beautiful Homestake Campground on the south end of the Racetrack

We had a nice lunch then walked down the road to the Racetrack Playa. I wouldn't recommend doing this in the summer without a hefty amount of water; it was only 70 degrees, and we were sweaty and thirsty just 20 minutes into the hike. The desert sucks the moisture out of you at an alarming rate, even in mild weather.

The Grandstand

The south end of the Racetrack gets fewer visitors than the north end; most people drive out for the day from the Ubehebe side, and stop at the small parking lot across from the Grandstand (the large group of rocks in the middle of the playa). We only saw one other couple out there, hardly a crowd. We took some pictures and listened to the silence for a while. It's a great place to listen to nothing, and one of my favorite places in the park.



Even though it's a remote and seemingly desolate place, the Racetrack has rules. Walking on the playa when it's wet is not allowed; it ruins the surface and the footprints it leaves take years to erase. Driving on the playa is absolutely not allowed anytime. But you know how people hate being told what to do. Someone (or someones, I suspect) had recently driven around on the playa, doing donuts and general screwing up the place for everyone else. The tracks are clustered around the parking area near the Grandstand, precisely where most people stop to take pictures. Some of the tracks looked old, but there were fairly fresh ones as well.



I'm not sure what motivates people to do this. Why here? There are hundreds of dry lake beds all over California and Nevada that are not in a National Park and are free for all sorts of mayhem. Why the only place known in the world where rocks slide across a lakebed all on their own leaving mystifying tracks in their wake? Is this a way of pissing on your territory? All I can say is it speaks volumes to your character if you're unable to visit a place without screwing it up for everyone else.

(Note to anyone considering doing this: I'm not usually prone to violence, but if I ever catch you I will not only make a note of your license number but I'd make sure you'd have to call a tow truck to get out of there. Your fifteen minutes of fame might turn into 6 to 12 months and a whopping fine not counting the 153 mile towing fee.  And geez, cell phones don't get much service out there, so you might even have to hike out to find help. Hope you brought water!)

The moon rises above Homestake Camp

We spent a gorgeous night at Homestake Campground. In a place known for it's wind and winter cold, it was calm and relatively warm. In the morning we drove to Teakettle Junction and out to Ubehebe crater. This part of the road is wide, corrugated and popular; we met several vehicles that were going much too fast for the conditions, and were even stopped by a few who were not sure where they were. (Note to anyone who wants to explore Death Valley: at the least, THE LEAST, invest in a map of the area and look at it!) We stopped to air up at the crater parking area, then hiked up to Little Hebe to stretch our legs.

Looking down into Ubehebe crater.



Ubehebe and Little Hebe craters were formed when magma burbled up close to the surface, hitting groundwater and setting off a steam induced explosion. Cinders from the craters have been found as far away as Lake Rogers, 50 miles to the south. It's a nice little hike, and from the top there's a nice view of the Funeral mountain range and the valley.

We found ourselves back in Furnace Creek that night, and since it was Mark's birthday, we all gussied up the best we could and went out to the Wrangler Steakhouse for dinner. We might not have been the best dressed patrons there that night, but I'm pretty sure we had more fun than all the other diners combined. Roughing it makes for a great adventure, but letting someone else cook while you have a cocktail out of the wind is pretty awesome too.

The birthday boy stands on the Racetrack Playa. I'll take a wild guess and say his birthday wish was to stay out there exploring forever.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Death Valley the Hard Way

Striped Butte, Death Valley National Park


It sounds like the start of a joke: 

"So, a Tacoma, an Xterra, a Unimog and a Ford F250 all meet in the desert..." 



The plan was to enter Death Valley taking the hardest route we had attempted to date: Mengel Pass. Our friends had driven this route before, but we had never attempted it because we usually travel alone. Since we were accompanied this time we weren't as worried about getting stranded if something happened. Our buddies would be there to:

a.) laugh at our ineptitude, then
b.) help get us out of a jam if we got into one.

(I have no doubt that would have been the order of things but thankfully we made it through in one piece. Pretty much, anyway.)


When I first read about Mengel Pass all I could think was how much that sounded like Josef Mengele, not exactly a calming comparison. Our Backcountry Adventures book's description was peppered with unhealthy phrases like: "large boulders", "shelf drop offs", "high clearance and experienced drivers required", and "flash floods sometimes make the route impassible". This was definitely not music to my ears, being a Nervous Nelly when it comes to driving on rough roads.
At the top of the Slate Range, looking out toward the Panamint Mountains
Our drive over the Slate Range roughly followed
the route taken by the Manly Party (click and
read the sign for info)
The valley looked so tame from above; turned out it was paved
with bowling ball sized boulders that were a pain to navigate.















We started out in Trona, driving over the Slate Range on BLM land, taking the general route of the Manly party (the ones who saved the ill-fated settlers who gave Death Valley it's name) ending up at the foot of the Panamint Range. Here there is a crevice in the cliffs of the mountains just wide enough for vehicles to pass through: Goler Wash.

The entrance to Goler Wash

It's pretty impressive, and beautiful in a desert-y way. The rocky mountains are mostly bare and practically vertical. Once in a while you turn a corner and there are cotton top cactus clinging to the cliffs that tower hundreds of feet over your head. When the wash opens up there are old cabins and mines to explore. Springs flow out of crevices in the rocks here and there and though we didn't see any, there are often bighorn sheep and wild burros in the area.

A wall of cotton topped cactus in the canyon.
The Unimog squeezes through the pass

This part of the trail was easy. The road was loose gravel with a few larger rocks thrown in often enough to where you wouldn't want to stop paying attention. The road climbs steadily upward, and it's so distractingly pretty with enough mining remnants and interesting views it (almost) makes you forget what's coming. We reached the turnoff to Mengel Pass and the road immediately made a steep incline to the top of a knoll overlooking a huge valley. Not Death Valley (that was over one more set of hills) but Butte Valley, named for the gorgeous striped butte that stands in the middle of it, imaginatively named Striped Butte.

Miner's cabin, Goler Wash
Anyway, to get to this gorgeous valley, you have to travel over what can only be very loosely described as a road. It's littered with big boulders, smaller big boulders and openings only large enough to fit the vehicle if you hold your breath (why does that help? I don't know, but I do it and it helps ok?).  It's really more like what you'd imagine a riverbed in Yosemite would look like if it ran dry.

Even though the Unimog is a larger vehicle, it had the advantage over our truck. It's got much higher clearance and a shorter wheel base, enabling it to easily traverse uneven terrain. We, on the other hand, had to pick our way through very slowly, sometimes stopping to stack rocks in between the boulders so we wouldn't end up teeter-tottering on our transfer case. It was slow, it was painful, and at one point we slid a little, scraping the steps that are mounted just under the driver's side door. That was acceptable to us, much better than putting a big dent in the body and possibly not being able to open and close the door properly. We made it, and our friends may have chuckled a bit, but they were nice enough to do it when we weren't watching.

The Unimog makes quick work of the rough "road" as we lurk behind the corner. (Photo credit: Craig and Rasa Fuller)

At this point, we had to get out and plot a course. We were the lowest vehicle of the bunch, with the added disadvantage of being the longest wheel base. There were a few spots we had to rearrange rocks to bridge the wider gaps.
(Photo credit: Craig and Rasa Fuller)
Sometimes spotting involves complicated dance moves.
(Photo credit: Craig and Rasa Fuller)
Victorious! We all made it through with (barely) a scratch.
(Photo credit: Craig and Rasa Fuller)
By the time we reached Butte Valley the sun was starting to set. We had spoken with another guy  over the radio who told us there weren't any other groups out here and in fact, the Geologist's Cabin was empty. Just what we were hoping to hear.

The Geologist's Cabin sits on a knoll overlooking Butte Valley

Geologist's Cabin was built by, well, a geologist of sorts. An old miner nicknamed Panamint Russ built the cabin and also a rock cistern for the spring nearby. He is said to have discovered, then promptly lost, the location of a very high-grade claim while prospecting in the valley in 1925. The guy might not have had much talent as a cartographer, but he had mad skills when it came to cabin building. And we were very thankful it was uninhabited that night, because the wind was screaming and the desert doesn't offer up much shelter. We all found the flattest spot we could behind the cabin to set up our tents/campers, then brought our stoves, water and coolers in out of the wind.

This plaque is embedded in the front stoop of the cabin. 
It reads: "Welcome. In the spirit of the Old West, please leave it better than you found it."
I think that spirit should apply to life in general, don't you?

The cabin is one of those rare public buildings that is taken care of by the public. The shelves inside are stocked with everything you might need; canned food, beer, firewood, even that aloe vera sunburn gel that I regret to say, we've needed more than once on trips to the desert. There's a sink, a water container, a countertop, a huge stone fireplace, and a big wooden table and chairs that look like they came out of your grandma's dining room. A small solar panel on the roof keeps a battery charged with enough juice to run the lamp for an hour or so. It was all amazingly free of rodent poo, considering it sits in the middle of the desert full of kangaroo rats. (Disclosure if you go: there is a general hantavirus warning for all of the cabins in the park. To date, none of our party has succumbed, but consider yourself warned.) The cabin rules, which are listed on a handwritten note over the fireplace tucked behind a folded American flag, are as follows:
  • Leave the place as you found it. If you use something, replace it.
  • Do not leave any food item that mice can chew into.
  • Build the fire at the very back of the fireplace or it will fill the cabin with smoke.
  • If the flag is raised, that means it's occupied by the Park Service, even if no one is home when you arrive.
There was a wooden outhouse out back as well, which was a welcome break from hiking in search of a bushy enough bush to hide behind, a tough thing to do in a place that gets 2.3 inches of rain a year. 

Cocktail hour out of the wind, with the perfect view of Striped Butte out the cabin window. (Ryan claims that tortilla chips and salsa are the mainstay of the human diet; he can be seen here in his natural habitat.)
Warming up by the fire
We built a nice fire and cooked dinner together in the cabin, staying up until past 10:00pm*(!) glad to be out of the wind and cold for the night.


(*10:00pm was a record for us on this trip. The desert has a reputation for heat and sun, and though it was pleasant most of the time during the day, this was February. After the sun goes down, especially at altitude, it gets downright cold. Sitting around in nylon camp chairs with the wind whistling under your butt somehow makes going to bed early very attractive.)


After a windy night (thank you Four Wheel Camper, we had it so much better than our poor friends in roof top tents) the morning brought sun and another beautiful view of Striped Butte in the valley below.
Striped Butte in the morning sun.


We packed up and drove down past the Butte, stopping here and there to take a picture and count our lug nuts (this part of the road had some major washboarding). A few miles out of the valley we stopped to check out Warm Spring Canyon, the site of an old talc mine. There are still some impressive mine shafts and mining equipment up there, along with numerous cabins and even a swimming pool that apparently was kept full by the warm springs until 1999. Sadly, it's empty now.


It was a great place to explore, and even had an established campsite or two nearby. The cabins looked like a group came by and used them occasionally; we found evidence of a possible long running poker game in one room. A case of beer, a table and chairs, and a boxed set of poker chips were sitting in a nice screened porch area on one end of the building.

We hiked up the hill behind the cabins to the source of the spring (Warm Spring, who names these things?). Warm water spilled out of a crack in the rocks, filling a little pool that was large enough to take a dip if you hunkered down into it. Not as good as a swimming pool, but it would have been fun if we had more time there.

Kitchen area of one of the Warm Spring cabins.


Looking out the door of the main cabin.
The now empty swimming pool overlooks Warm Spring Canyon. 
Wouldn't it be cool if this was still full of water?

The spring: a high-tech water system (rusty pipe, center) siphons some of the water off for the cabins below.

Warm Spring pool, on the hillside above the cabins.
The talc mine entrance. Seemed to us there was still plenty of talc to be had in the area, judging by all the white stuff lying around.
Looking down to the cabin from the spring above.
It was a long drive out to Death Valley proper. Warm Spring Canyon road meets up with West Side road, a popular gravel road that is open to regular passenger cars (usually). This being an unusually rainy year, West Side Road was closed to traffic that day. Fortunately for us, the park service had left the gates unlocked, so we were able to sneak out onto Badwater Road, closing the gate behind us to keep some unsuspecting tourist from getting mired down in the muck. The Amargosa River, normally a dry riverbed that crosses the road, was flowing up to six inches deep that day, creating enough mud to suck an unsuspecting rental car down to the hubs.

Looking down on Death Valley toward Badwater Road, the salt flats shining white in the sun.

The entire off-road portion of this trip was about 50 miles. Be aware of your fuel consumption; it's always a good idea to have spare fuel and an extra spare tire. Sharp rocks, big boulders, heat (depending on the time of year) and flash floods are all possibilities in the back country so it pays to be prepared. There are no services (not even cell service for most of the way) and help would be many hours and dollars away.

It was a fun trip, and we recapped the adventure over a late lunch at the Forty-Niner Cafe in Furnace Creek Village. (If you decide to do this, be sure to check you're credit limit; the sandwiches averaged $20.00 each. Fortunately they were huge; Mark and I ended up having the other half of mine for breakfast later in the trip.)
From left: Rasa, Craig, LeeWhay, Ryan, me, Mark and Andrew.
A better crew we couldn't ask for.

Next stop: Saline Valley, Lippincott Pass and the Racetrack.